September 15, 2021 3 Comments on Buttonholes 101: Part 1
by Cynthia Anderson
Buttons seem innocent and straightforward enough; however, it is a rare sewist that does not feel a flutter of trepidation when inevitably faced with making buttonholes, especially lots of them. The voice in one’s head taunts, “If I screw up the buttonholes, I will ruin my project and all will turn to sourness and ruin!” For others they consciously or subconsciously avoid patterns that require buttons and buttonholes. The truly afflicted ponder the possibility that their personal sewing aesthetic is more suitable to snaps, hooks & eyes, loops, or safety pins. That is not to say that all the aforementioned do not have their place.
But once you get the hang of buttonholes, you may find they add to the beauty of your sewing. Not only are buttonholes a functional detail, but they can frame and show off a button to it’s fullest, making a garment sing. Buttons and buttonholes are simply hard to avoid if you make clothing. They can be so pretty and add so much.
With that said, no one wants to diligently work on an otherwise happily executed project to have it end in despair because the buttonholes disappoint. The next two blog posts are for anyone who needs to learn buttonhole basics or for anyone who needs a refresher, with a few tips along the way. Buttonholes are not difficult, but they do come with variables you need to know how to handle. Where to place and space them, how they best work together, how to handle when applied to different fabrics, and how buttons actually determine the button/buttonhole relationship.
This month Folkwear is featuring the versatile 133 Belgian Military Chef's Jacket paper pattern or the pdf version. The curved seam construction of this jacket is truly flattering on everyone. The back is semi-fitted, and curves gently to a center point; double-breasted front panels can button to either side. Set-in sleeves are finished with curved cuffs. This is a great fall jacket addition to any wardrobe and a perfect piece for perfecting buttonholes at the same time. The button details truly make the 133 Belgian Military Chef's Jacket special.
Of course there are many Folkwear patterns to that are designed using buttons and buttonholes. For some Folkwear Fall Favorites check out the 202 Victorian Shirt ( and pdf), 216 Schoolmistress' Shirtwaist & Skirt, 222 Vintage Vest, 229 Sailor Pant ( and pdf), 230 Model T Duster, 231 Big Sky Riding Skirt (and pdf), 242 Rodeo Cowgirl Jacket, 251 Varsity Jacket pdf, 263 Contryside Frock Coat, and 270 Metro Middy Blouse (and pdf) , to name a few!
Go ahead and gather the materials needed to make a buttonhole and set them aside for now. And, note that we are only covering making machine-made buttonholes in these next two posts. There are lovely ways to make hand-sewn buttonholes that perhaps we will cover in another blog post.
In order to make a buttonhole the correct size you need to start with the button. Therefore, it is helpful to know a bit about how buttons differ in the way they are structured, used, and sewn.
Buttons come in all shapes and sizes and are made out of all kinds of materials including: mother-of-pearl (shell), wood, bone, antler, bamboo, leather, stone, metal, glass, resin, and plastic. They come in all colors and can be decorative or plain.
Buttons typically fall into two categories…flat and shank.
Flat buttons come with either one (antique), two, or four holes and are referred to as buttons with visible holes. They are sewn to fabric through the holes using thread, either by hand or using a sewing machine. Two hole buttons are used for light to mid weight fabrics and four hole buttons are typically used on heavier fabrics or when extra security is needed.
For a flat button to sit properly, it should be sewn so it rests just above the buttonhole when fastened. To achieve this extra bit of space, a little shank is made by slipping a sewing needle or toothpick between the underside of the button and the fabric it is to sewn to.
Note: Two-hole buttons are typically positioned and sewn with the holes running parallel to the buttonhole, both for horizontal and vertical buttonholes. However, if sewing a button to fine fabric the holes should run perpendicular to the buttonhole to create more strength and stability. Four-hole buttons are sewn with the center of the button to the center line. Position of the buttonholes is not important.
With the button slightly elevated above the fabric a thread shank is easily created when sewing the button in place. This extra bit of space allows the two layers of fabric to sit comfortable under the button. This thread shank also gives the button a little movement and prevents abrading the fabric. Make the shank by making a few passes with the thread through the button and fabric and then wrap the thread underneath the button around the threads a couple of times for strength.
They are sewn to fabric by hand sewing, using a needle and thread that passes through the shank hole and into the fabric. Shank buttons are generally used on heavy and thick layers of fabrics, but not always.
Note: For shank buttons, the shank should be positioned and sewn with the shank running parallel to the buttonhole, both for horizontal and vertical buttonholes.
Hint: If using buttons on the back of a garment, flat buttons are going to be more comfortable. Simply consider if you would want to lean back on or sit on a button that has a shank or is rather thick, or large.
Yes, buttonholes have anatomy and it helps to understand it. Not all machines make buttonholes in the exact same way. Machines can use a one-step or 4-step method and those methods can vary in how they are executed. But no matter the way a sewing machine sews it's buttonhole, the anatomy is still the same.Buttonholes use two parallel rows, or beads, which are created with an extremely short zig-zag or satin stitch, connected at each end with a longer zig-zag stitch called a bartack.
The thin channel of fabric between the beads is slit open for the button to pass through. A buttonhole is actually a cut in the fabric framed by stitches to provide integrity and stability.
Note: Buttonholes are never made on the wrong or back side of the fabric because the bottom tension thread will then be visible and you don't want this.
The illustration below shows the typical four-step buttonhole method. In this example the stitching starts at the back of the machine and moves forward. The red portion with the arrow indicates the stitches sewn at each step in creating the buttonhole.
Note: that some machines start their buttonhole stitch from the front to the back.
The most common buttonhole offered on today's machines are the Standard, No Bartack, Keyhole, and Top Bartack.
The Standard buttonhole is the most common and works nicely on mid- to heavy weight fabrics. This style of buttonhole is offered on all sewing machines.
The No Bartack buttonhole is rounded on both ends. This design works well on fine fabrics such as silk, because the round edges do not damage the delicate fibers of the fabric.
The Keyhole buttonhole is best used on heavy fabrics when using thick buttons or buttons with shanks are used. The shape of the “keyhole” enables the button to pass through the thick layers of fabric more easily. Coats and jeans often have this type of buttonhole.
The Bartack buttonhole is used on fine to mid-weight fabrics. This style is often found on children’s clothes and finer women’s garments.
Depending on the machine, some offer lots of buttonhole options, while others may be more basic. For our purposes we will focus on using the Standard buttonhole.
Buttonhole sizing depends on the size of the button. Sizing generally refers to the length of the buttonhole. To create the correct buttonhole length, a button’s diameter (width), thickness of the button, and whether it has a shank, should be taken into consideration.
Buttons come in standard sizes including; 1/4-inch (6mm), 5/16-inch (8mm), 3/8-inch (9.5mm), 1/2-inch (13mm), 5/8-inch (16mm), 3/4-inch (19mm), 1-inch (2.5cm), and continuing on up. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to which size of buttons to use. But typically, smaller buttons are used on shirts and fitted blouses and children’s clothing. Garments like coats and jackets are often made from thicker fabrics and need heavier and larger buttons.
To determine the size of the buttonhole, measure the width or diameter of the button and add an extra 1/8-inch (3mm). This extra 1/8-inch (3mm) makes the buttonhole a tad longer, helping to ensure there is enough room for the button to pass through the buttonhole. Both horizontal and vertical buttonholes receive this additional length. Vertical buttonholes receive the additional 1/8-inch (3mm) at the top of the buttonhole. Horizontal buttonholes receive length on the finished edge of the garment.
The thickness or height of a button matters too. If the button is thick or domed, the buttonhole opening will need another tad more length to make the opening larger. Add another 1/8-inch (3mm) and test.
Now that you know how to determine the size of a buttonhole, make a test. Draw a line the length of your buttonhole on the right side of the fabric, using a pencil or fabric pen like the illustration below. For now, do not worry about positioning, just sew a buttonhole the length you marked. Draw a line like the one below.
Note: When making the final buttonhole guideline you will want to use a non-permanent method, like a heat sensitive or water soluble pen (water erasable marker) made for this purpose. Or make a Tailor's Tack by using a needle and single thread to create the line. Remember that buttonholes are made on the right side of the fabric, so you don't want the guideline to be visible.
Now test making a buttonhole using your machine according to instructions in the manual. Push your work under the foot and place your needle exactly at the buttonhole start. Set the stitch spacing according to your manual instructions. Align the guide on the foot with the drawn line, to keep the buttonhole straight. Keep practicing making different lengths. Adjust stitch width as necessary depending on the length.
Note: If your fabric seems to drag and not move easily when stitching the buttonhole, lengthen the stitch. If the stitch is too small or tight the feed dogs can have difficulty moving the fabric as it should.
Tip: Test the buttonhole to be sure the button will easily pass through the cut opening. Nothing is more frustrating than the thrill of beautifully executed buttonholes, only to then discover that they are too small for the buttons.
Now that you have successfully made a test buttonhole. Lets play around with button placement as a design element.
How many? This depends on how many buttons you have and how many you think look aesthetically pleasing. Typically buttons don't look very good spaced too far or too close together. But this is up to you.
Hint: Some sewists like to use an uneven number of buttons, but that is personal preference.
Take the time to experiment with different configurations and spacing possibilities. Buttons can be evenly spaced or grouped. A pair of tiny buttons can be treated as one button, spacing them just far enough apart to set each pair off. I have a thing for copious amounts of tiny shoe buttons running down the front of a vintage inspired blouse. Depending on the garment and size, four or five evenly spaced can be all the buttons needed. Buttons can make a statement or have a more subtle effect depending on the button and color of thread used used to frame them. If you are feeling adventuresome, mix your buttons up! How you use your buttons is totally up to you.
Hint: If you want your buttons understated, use a thread that blends with the color of the button and fabric.Use a Simflex (folds like an accordion), for more accurate spacing of your buttons. Or simply space your buttons out freehand to get an idea of what appeals to you and then use a ruler for accurate spacing.
Note: The rule is, typically ,that women’s blouses buttonholes on the right (as worn), which means the buttons go on the left. Buttonholes on Men’s shirts go the left (as worn). To help you remember… just remember “women are always right.”
There are strategic considerations for where to start and spacing buttons. Below are a some scenarios to help you get started:
Note: Top buttons are generally placed 5/8-inch (16mm) down from the top edge of the garment at the neckline, depending on the size of the button.
Note: Buttons are not usually positioned close to the bottom edge of a garment. Men’s shirts vs women’s blouses are a good example to study. Keep in mind whether you will wear the garment tucked into a bottom garment or worn loose.
Hint: Don’t neglect other places that buttons could be placed. Cuffs, collars, and tabs come to mind. Use the same the aesthetic through out your project, making your garment cohesive and harmonious.
Because buttons are always placed on the center line, it is the buttonhole that must be positioned correctly either horizontally, vertically, or at an angle to work properly with the button. Each position has it’s own advantages and reasons for doing so. Angled buttons are more complicated, so we will leave them for now, and focus on horizontal and vertical buttonholes.
Hint: Sometimes the top and bottom buttonholes will be sewn horizontal to serve as more stable anchors. The top buttonhole on a man's shirt is often sewn horizontally.
Hopefully, you have learned some new things about buttons and buttonholes, but there is more to come. In Part: Two of this blog you will learn how the button and buttonhole come together to create a functioning detail.
The Folkwear 133 Belgian Military Chef's Jacket is not only a great wardrobe addition for fall, but also the perfect opportunity to try your new buttonhole knowledge. The pattern is available as a printed version or pdf and both are on sale throughout the month of September. Purchase your pattern just in time for the next blog installment Buttonhole 101: Part Two, where we will finish up all you need to know to make lovely buttonholes.
September 20, 2021
So thorough! Beautifully written
September 15, 2021
What a helpful article! Thanks for all you offer Molly.
May 12, 2023
September 23, 2021
Thank you for this! I have finished up the Seminole Jacket except for the button holes, so it is very timely. Courage!!